Last year, I was engaged by the World Bank Group as a communications specialist under the Ease of Doing Business Programme. My brief was to assist the Zimbabwe government to communicate the reforms to both business and citizens.
public relations with Lenox Mhlanga
The World Bank, through supporting communication efforts in the reform process, recognises the fact that successful policy delivery relies on effective communications.
It was my first exposure to the inner workings of government communications. I was previously exposed to civic affairs as senior public relations officer for the city of Bulawayo. However, this was different in that it lies in the realm of public affairs.
There is so much that is deficient with the manner which government organises its communications. Top of the list is a lack of appreciation of the power and importance of communication in the conduct of government business. There is little budgetary support and there is a dearth of qualified communicators in ministries, state enterprises and agencies.
The state does not have a government wide communication strategy. This is a standard by which any entity can successfully deliver communications around policy. The nearest attempt by government at such a document is the communication strategy for the Zimbabwe Agenda for Sustainable Socio-Economic Transformation (ZimAsset), which is yet to be launched because of funding issues.
Without having to bore you with government’s constitutional obligations, it is prudent that citizens are advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.
However, it is apparent that in the digital age, there is the dire need for top government officials to be able to appreciate the role of communications in the successful delivery of public policy.
Apart from that, a clear understanding of the cycle of communication strategy, planning, execution and evaluation is essential. This also entails an appreciation of the relationship between behaviour change, communication strategy and policy outcomes.
The department of public affairs and knowledge management in the Office of the President and Cabinet (OPC) under Ambassador Mary Mubi, is well-positioned to drive government communications because they understand its unique role and nature in Zimbabwe’s public policy environment.
While working with Mubi’s department in the OPC, there were identifiable challenges in the communications function of government in general, and that of the department in particular.
We made recommendations that would address the challenges to close the communication gaps identified. The challenges included an absence of a strategic framework for communications resulting in ad-hoc communications by ministers and their ministries.
Reactive communications have been a major weakness in most government communications. Government agencies seemed to have their backs against the wall, especially when it came to explaining what they were obligated to deliver and their natural reaction was to be defensive or come out fighting.
Notably, internal and external communications have been largely one-way exacerbated by a weak communication capacity and this was observed across all sectors of government. The trend the world over is a move towards a more consultative approach. This tended to engender trust between government and its citizens.
Internal communications builds on the institutional culture that already exists in government. Successful internal communications contribute to essential buy-in from internal audiences, the staff.
It creates a knowledge sharing environment while promoting an all-inclusive, one-government approach to solving problems and tackling emerging issues. It further strengthens teamwork and trust. When it comes to communicating policy initiatives, staff were invariably the best ambassadors.
External communication activities are important to increase awareness of activities related to government policy among key stakeholders.
We also noted that new technology and digital media could be incorporated as effective tools of government communications, enhancing communication channels such as the government web portal, media relations, influencer relations and publications.
Another of the challenges observed was the slow adoption of an “open government” approach to communications.
Perceptions should change, since information is a commodity that will enable more successful implementation and adoption of policy.
There are many who felt that access to information legislation, particularly the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, tended to be restrictive. There seems to be lethargy on the part of government to push for the re-alignment of such legislation with the constitution.
Another observation was that the Ministry of Information, Media and Broadcasting Services’ role is more of gatekeeper than an access point for citizens to get information on policy and policy makers.
The intention here is to assist authorities in enhancing their capacity to communicate government policy. We are encouraged by the fact that more ministries are creating posts that are manned by communicators.
Public relations officers that are being employed by ministries and government agencies require capacity support both in terms of training and budgets. The profession gains from such efforts in that employment opportunities are being opened for practitioners while public relations agencies are contracted for training and capacity building services.
I will follow up this article with key findings from The Leaders’ Report, the first global study into government communication. The report gives direction as to how the public relations profession can play a critical role in guiding the government on communication strategy.
Lenox Mhlanga is an associate consultant with Magna Carta Reputation Management Consultants. He has worked for the World Bank Group as a specialist communications consultant and is part-time lecturer in public relations at a local university. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org